BEST PLAYER: Marcus Smart, no question. Smart is one of the best players in the country, much less the Big 12 (10). He has all the skills a coach looks for in a point guard: size, quickness, leadership, strength, decision-making, vision, etc. Smart is in pretty exclusive company when it comes to players who can check him one-on-one. He turned down the NBA last year to develop his offensive skill set this season. If the extra year pays off and Smart comes back with a polished jump shot to compliment his already tenacious driving and playmaking then look out.
X-FACTOR: The Cowboys' X-Factor is actually a two-headed monster in returning wing players Markel Brown and Le'Bryan Nash. Nash was a super highly sought-after high school recruit who was thought of as a more levelheaded Ron Artest type (tough, physical, enforcer type rebounder and defender who plays bigger than his size with good strength and athleticism). While he has yet to live up to any hype, Nash showed flashes last year that could add up to a productive season as Smart's wingman this year. Brown is most well known for his jaw-dropping dunks and alley-oops, but Brown is a very capable scorer who averaged 15.3 points per game a year ago while shooting 37% from three. He may look to be more of an offensive factor in his senior year.
TOUGHEST GAME: The obvious game for this slot is their Jan. 18 matchup with the Jayhawks in Lawrence. This game, though early in the season, could very well determine who has the early edge to win the Big 12 (10). The Cowboys will get KU again at home later in the season in March, but the more difficult matchup is obviously the one in Allen Fieldhouse.
REASON FOR HOPE: If you're an Okie State fan then you have a lot of reasons to hope this season. More than anything, you have a veteran sophomore point guard who ultimately returned for one reason: hang a banner. With Smart, who is effectively playing in his senior season, the Cowboys have a proven, respected player who has control of the locker room. Under his leadership, a final four campaign is very, very possible.
BEST PLAYER: It is hard to pin so much on a guy who hasn't even stepped on a college court yet, but it is impossible to talk about Kansas without talking about Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins is a true phenom, with the potential to be a KD or LeBron caliber player some day. He isn't there yet though, so gauge your expectations accordingly. Wiggins has a complete offensive game with a lights out midrange jump shot that he can get off whenever he wants. He also has the handles to use his elite quickness to blow by any wing defender and finish at the rim with grace or authority. Playing in Bill Self's system will likely limit his numbers a little bit, but when Wiggins is at his best he is a triple-double threat that should average around 20 a game. Let me put it this way; your kids are going to be wearing this guy's shoe someday.
X-FACTOR: Joel Embiid is the best player that a lot of people haven't heard of. Any true basketball junkie knows about this raw young center, though, because of the freak potential that Embiid brings to the table. Embiid is a legit 7-footer from Cameroon who is still learning the game, but he has the potential to be a Serge Ibaka-caliber defensive stopper. Although his floor would be more that of a Hasheem Thabeet, I don't see Bill Self letting that happen. Self has a history of developing very sound defensive centers (recent history includes Jeff Withey and Cole Aldrich) and Embiid appears to be on track to be Self's next prized defensive stopper. Kansas will need Embiid to rise up this year because, for as good as their wing and guard play will be this season, they are relatively unproven inside.
TOUGHEST GAME: The inverse of the Oklahoma State. When the Jayhawks travel to Stillwater on Mar. 1, they will likely be playing for outright control of the conference. This is also going to be one of KU's only statement games late in their schedule as they will probably be pushing for yet another 1-seed in the NCAA tournament.
REASON FOR HOPE: Simply put, Kansas has a generational talent on their team in Wiggins. However, the shy, unproven superstar will need help in his first (and assumedly only) college season. Players like Embiid, Wayne Selden, Naadir Tharpe, and Perry Ellis will need to all step up and play up to their electric potential for this team to make a legitimate March push.
BEST PLAYER: Isaiah Austin was regarded as a top-10 level talent coming out of high school as a 7'1 forward/center hybrid that could handle the ball and shoot it out to the NBA three point line. Austin played well in his first season in Waco but still showed how raw he was at times and how far he has to go. First of all, Austin needs to bulk up to handle the load of top competition. If he managed to add weight to his incredibly slight frame in the offseason then he will be more of a factor this season and could live up to the hype of a potential All-American/lottery pick. Last year Austin averaged 13 ppg and 8.3 rebounds, but those numbers should spike on a team that will likely run the offense through him. If he plays up to his ability then he is a double-double candidate who should score around 17-18 a game.
X-FACTOR: Cory Jefferson has been around the Baylor program seemingly forever. Jefferson is the type of hard-nosed player that any team in the country would be happy to have. He knows his place on the court and outworks his opponent on a nightly basis. The physicality of Jefferson compliments Austin's finesse game well, as Jefferson can make up for a lot of the problems created by Austin's inept physicality. Jefferson, along with sophomore forward Rico Gathers, will be essential to the Bears' success this year if Baylor hopes to make a push for the Big 12 (10) crown.
TOUGHEST GAME: They will have plenty of difficult road trips during conference play this year, but the early season matchup at home against Kentucky is going to show what kind of team this Baylor squad will be this year. If Kentucky rolls in and demolishes the Bears at home then logical thinking would suggest that the Bears are a tournament-caliber team, but not much more. The aforementioned combination of Austin, Jefferson, and Gathers will be tested by a large, physical, and gifted Wildcat frontline.
REASON FOR HOPE: The Big 12 (10) is a weak conference this year outside of the top four or five, so the Bears should be able to stock up on wins during conference play. If they take care of business they could be looking at a 4 or 5 seed in the tournament, which would slot them for a promising run. I don't think they will have the guard play to make a late March run, but they have a talented slew of forwards that could carry the team and surprise some people.
BEST PLAYER: Eron Harris is the Mountaineers best returning player. Harris played very well down the stretch for West Virginia. His best game of the year came in a three-point loss to Baylor when Harris went for 25 points, living at the free throw line in that contest going 10-13 from the charity stripe. The much-improved mountaineers will need consistent production from the sophomore guard to make a splash in the Big 12 (10) this year.
X-FACTOR: 6'8 freshman Devin Williams comes in rated very highly out of high school. Williams picked West Virginia over Memphis and Ohio State, which alone should tell you what kind of potential this young forward has. Williams has a well-rounded post game that allows him to score from anywhere out to around 12 feet. Huggy Bear will push this kid to get the most out of him, which may result in some midseason struggles, but I think the Mountaineers have good reason to be excited about this forward prospect.
TOUGHEST GAME: Jan. 28 stands out to me as one of the toughest games on the Mountaineers' schedule. Huggy Bear and crew travel to Waco only three days after going to Stillwater. That quick turnaround is going to be very hard on the Mountaineers who will probably come out with particularly tired legs after making two trips across the country in three days. After playing a tough game in Stillwater, I find it hard to believe the Mountaineers will be able to turn around that quickly to take down the Bears in Waco.
REASON FOR HOPE: Last year was kind of the rebuilding year for West Virginia. They will be returning a lot of young talent from last year's crew and also brought in talented young players in their freshman class. The key to the success of the Mountaineers' season will hinge on how quickly someone emerges as a leader for the young team.
BEST PLAYER: Melvin Ejim is the best returning player from a team that gave a lot of teams problems a year ago. Ejim, the 6'6 senior forward, showed improved perimeter play a year ago, shooting the ball at 34% from three. He averaged close to a double-double per game last year at 11.3 ppg and 9.3 boards. That nose for the ball will be contagious, which could set the trend for the rest of the team. Anytime your senior leader is a workhorse type of player your team will be competitive and successful.
X-FACTOR: Freshman Matt Thomas turned down offers from more prominent programs like Wisconsin and Marquette to play in Ames. He will see a big role in the offense early as he fills in for departed Cyclone star Will Clyburn. Thomas is a good shooter with a good feel for the game that ranked 51st on ESPN's top 100 list last year.
TOUGHEST GAME: The Cyclones will be tested early when Michigan visits Ames. The Wolverines won't be quite the squad they were last year when they fell just short of winning the whole shebang, but they are still a team that is loaded with talent at every position. If Iowa State can hang tough at home then they may send a message to the Big 12 (10) early on that they are here to play.
REASON FOR HOPE: Iowa State is always pesky and plays exceptionally well at home. They have young talent on the roster right now and can take advantage of a weak Big 12 (10) to finish in the top half of the conference. They have a tough road ahead of them, but this team could potentially book a spot in the NCAA tournament, the talent is there.
BEST PLAYER: Sophomore Je'lon Hornbeak has not only the best name on the team, but also the most talent of anyone on the returning squad. He had limited opportunity last year but this year could prove to be a bit of a coming-out party for Hornbeak as he takes a bigger role in the Sooners' offense.
X-FACTOR: The Gonzaga transfer Ryan Spangler has the daunting task of holding down the interior for the Sooners. The sophomore lacks size, standing only 6'8, but is a hard worker who hauled in 52 rebounds in only 145 minutes played in his one year at Gonzaga. Having spent time behind players like Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk is sure to have rubbed off on Spangler, which could make him a player people are familiar with by the end of the year.
TOUGHEST GAME: Feb. 15 marks the Sooners road date with Okie State. The instate rivals will be meeting for the second time, and regardless of the outcome of the first match, the Cowboys will be fired up to stick it to their Sooner rivals in front of a surely raucous home crowd. This one spells trouble for OU.
REASON FOR HOPE: The Sooners are in a bit of a transition year. They lost quality players off of last year's tournament team, such as Romero Osby. They still have some young talent on the squad, but this season should be more focused on building for the future.
BEST PLAYER: The title of Best K-State Player is up in the air right now, as so many talented players departed the program after last year. The two names that stand out right away are returning shooter-extraordinaire Will Spradling and senior forward Shane Southwell. Both have served quality time as role players during their first three years with the program and now will be relied on heavily to take control of the team.
X-FACTOR: The X-Factor for the team will be who can step up. There are so many unproven pieces on this K-State team that it is difficult to point to one or two players that are sure to make an impact on the team this year. Still, there is decent amount of talent on this Kansas State team so they should still finish no lower than seventh in conference.
TOUGHEST GAME: When they take on rival Kansas, things tend to get nasty. This season will not be any different, but when they play in Lawrence on Jan. 11 that will be the first time K-State will have ever seen Wiggins and company, and that may not end very well for the Wildcats.
REASON FOR HOPE: Similarly to OU, this is a rebuilding season for K-State. This season is a chance to give younger players a chance to step up and take leadership roles down the road.
BEST PLAYER: It is hard to put everything on the shoulders of a freshman, so for that reason I don't think Karviar Shepherd will necessarily live up to his potential this year. I see a lot of growing pains for the freshman, so I think the Horned Frogs will rely mostly on the play of point guard Kyan Anderson. Anderson has been the triggerman for the Frogs for a few seasons now, having received quality playing time since he was a freshman. Anderson, now a junior, led the Frogs in scoring last year with 12 a game, and shot well from three point land. TCU will rely on him to be more of a distributor this year to get some of their young talent involved, but in crunch time I would still expect Anderson to be the guy with the ball in his hands the most.
X-FACTOR: Amric Fields, when healthy, is the most versatile weapon on TCU's roster. Fields is coming back this season after tearing his ACL early last year against SMU. The 6'9 forward has a versatile skill set that allows him to play out on the perimeter and the wings. He can handle the ball and has a smooth offensive arsenal when he plays smart and in rhythm. Fields does have the tendency to overextend his range and force some bad shots, but at the end of the day a healthy Fields could result in significant bump in the competitiveness of TCU during conference play.
TOUGHEST GAME: By design, TCU has a pretty generous nonconference schedule this year. The team is young and head coach Trent Johnson isn't ready to throw them into the fire. That said, most road games will be tough for this young TCU team, especially those that fall in conference play. The toughest will undoubtedly come in Lawrence on Feb. 15. The Jayhawks probably still have yet to forget losing in Fort Worth last year and will still be hungry to eliminate that from people's memories forever.
REASON FOR HOPE: The team is young and talented. Though this season may not render much success, the team should play around .500 basketball and has the look of a team that could finish with anywhere from 3-7 wins in conference, which at the least is an improvement from last year. Keep looking toward the future Frog fans.
BEST PLAYER: Javan Felix is probably the most notable player left on Texas's depth chart, which is scary. The program already is having trouble outrecruiting schools like Baylor and Oklahoma State for the local talent, and it doesn't help when places like Kentucky can just swoop in and take top prospects in Texas's backyard (read: Julius Randle from Dallas). Felix is more of a spark plug, change of pace type of player, but Texas is so depleted that he will have a much bigger role this year.
X-FACTOR: Cameron Ridley is really the last big name recruit the Longhorns have had in a while. He was fat, slow, and out of shape last year which sorely hurt his stock as a prospect. If he comes back in significantly better shape this season then he could end up being Texas's best player. He is strong and plays with a good motor around the basket. He appeared to have good touch on the offensive end of the floor, and is such a load on the defensive end that he can neutralize opposing big men. Ridley needs to commit himself to conditioning, but if he does then he could surprise people this year and return to national relevance.
TOUGHEST GAME: Rick Barnes is notorious for scheduling a very difficult nonconference schedule, and this year is no exception. The problem with scheduling road games at North Carolina and Temple, as well as games at home against Michigan State, Vanderbilt, and a pesky BYU team is that this year's UT team is pretty bad. They could be looking at five losses before conference play even starts. The hardest of these games, in my eyes, is at home against Michigan State. The Spartans are a legit top-5 team to start the year, and have a future lottery pick in shooting guard Gary Harris that will cause a matchup nightmare against the depleted Longhorns.
REASON FOR HOPE: Well, to be brutally honest there isn't much reason for hope this year. Short of Barnes pulling some kind of Little Giants-style miracle out of his ass, the Longhorns just aren't talented enough to win against the caliber of competition they will be seeing this year. But you can always look to the future. And they are still UT, which means they will always be on the radar of top recruits every year. A player like Justise Winslow could come in and make an immediate difference in the program.
10. TEXAS TECH
BEST PLAYER: Jaye Crockett, the 6'7 senior forward, is the Red Raiders' returning leader in most offensive categories. He led Tech with just a hair under 12 ppg last year and averaged 6.5 rebounds per contest as well.
X-FACTOR: Alex Foster is a promising forward prospect from Chicago who turned down offers from Tennessee, Minnesota, and Nebraska to come to Lubbock (bold move). Foster is a slender 6'8 forward with good athleticism that could make an early impact for the constantly rebuilding Raiders.
TOUGHEST GAME: An early trip to Tucson on Dec. 3 will be Tech's first taste of real, elite level basketball. I expect Arizona to emerge from that game unscathed, which could be at the great expense of this Texas Tech team.
REASON FOR HOPE: Very little.